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COMMENT: City proposes sharrows for Rideau Street (plus a floating bike lane for Slater)

The city’s proposed redesign for the Slater and Elgin Street intersection, with a floating bike lane. The city says the concept is under review pending stakeholder feedback.

The City of Ottawa has recently proposed redesigns for two downtown corridors — Rideau Street and Albert/Slater Streets — both of which I found surprising, considering the city’s “complete streets” policy.

The two corridors will see some changes after the opening of LRT. Rideau Street is due for a renewal intended to “support the success of Confederation Line’s Rideau Station” and turn it into a focus of pedestrian activity. The Albert/Slater Streets corridor is being repurposed because it will no longer serve as a main downtown travelway for buses, so the city wants to orient it more towards walking and cycling.

But the city is relying on some unpopular and possibly dangerous designs for bikes that need to be reconsidered if it wants to achieve these objectives.

Sharrows for Rideau

Sharrows are icons painted on the road with two chevrons and an image of a bike. Here’s an explainer from the Ontario Traffic Manual Book 18:

“Sharrows are intended to indicate to both motorists and cyclists the appropriate line of travel for cyclists. Where shared lanes are sufficiently wide for cyclists to ride alongside motorists, sharrows are applied near the curb. Where shared lanes are too narrow for this, the sharrows are placed in the centre of the lane.”

The city has used sharrows on numerous streets in Ottawa. They are cheap and don’t need extra road space as they only serve as reminder that cyclists can use the road too. But because they don’t provide cyclists any protection from motor vehicles, as a segregated laneway would, sharrows can’t really be considered a safe form of infrastructure.

Advocacy group Bike Ottawa’s policy statement says sharrows should only be used as a temporary measure or to provide ancillary function like helping cyclists find their way. “While some experienced and confident cyclists find sharrows help emphasize their right to use the road, sharrows do not generally improve the safety or comfort of the average person. They are not a suitable substitute for cycling infrastructure for people of all ages and abilities,” the cycling group says on their website.

Besides the fact most drivers ignore sharrows, they also tend to be pretty unhelpful. Case in point: this fading sharrow in front of the Lord Elgin Hotel, approaching Laurier Avenue W., that puts cyclists in an awkward position of trying to not get hooked by drivers turning right.

A faded sharrow on Elgin Street. (Photo/Devyn Barrie)

I asked Bike Ottawa to react specifically to the Rideau Street proposal and their president, Heather Shearer, shared her comments: “Rideau is an opportunity to build for a future where it’s enjoyable to travel without a car. We can have a vibrant downtown that works for all, with less noise, less pollution, and more life on the street, but sharrows won’t accomplish that: it’s clear that most people are not comfortable mingling bike and car traffic.”

Yaro Shkvorets, an Ottawa resident who gets around by bike, said he’d have preferred to see the city propose a separated cycling facility on the north side of Rideau Street.

“That would give people on bikes a safe link to the Byward Market from the rest of the city and remove cyclists from sidewalks where they don’t belong, especially on a crowded street like that,” he wrote in a Twitter DM. “Unfortunately right now there is really no safe way to bike from Centretown to Byward Market and Lowertown.”

Shkvorets was also not impressed by the large number of parking spaces the city wants to bring back to the street, which has been closed to private vehicles for several years as LRT was under construction. The city’s design proposed “flex space” along the curb that could be used for parking or to have patios. He said that seemed odd, given the fact it’s right on top of an LRT station and there are several parking garages nearby.

The city’s display boards from last week’s open house on the Rideau Street renewal. They have not been posted to the city’s website yet. (Photos via Yaro Shkvorets)

I wish I could give you a link to see the proposed design for Rideau Street but, as of Tuesday evening at 5:30 p.m., the City of Ottawa had not posted the concept that was presented last week. As soon as I see they have provided the full plan this article will be updated.

Coun. Mathieu Fleury tweeted the open house heard “solid feedback” regarding the cycling facilities.

Floating bike lane à la Laurier Avenue

A few weeks ago a cyclist was struck and killed by a hit-and-run driver while riding on Laurier Avenue, which has a “floating” bike lane. This is where the bike lane is flanked by vehicle lanes on either side, sandwiching cyclists in between what is often fast-moving and high-volume traffic. Coun. Shawn Menard calls it a “murder strip”, a word that apparently originated from Belgium and refers to an unprotected bike lane shared with high-speed motor vehicles. You can read more about that specific bike lane in a previous commentary here…

(Full disclosure: I have twice participated in demonstrations where red cups filled with coloured water were lined along the Laurier Avenue floating lane to demonstrate its vulnerability to cars, because I think it would be nice for people to ride their bikes without constantly risking death.)

The Laurier Avenue floating bike lane, outside city hall. Red cups filled with coloured water were placed along its broken line to show how often cars enter the lane, potentially risky for cyclists. (Photo/Devyn Barrie)

Putting cyclists in situations where they are sandwiched between drivers going much faster than them is very dangerous and not a great way to encourage more cycling. This goes to the heart of a discussion happening in many cities today that are trying to improve their cycling facilities — it’s about creating infrastructure that mitigates the possibilities for human error to cause serious harm or even death to its users, to the point where we can eventually have zero road deaths. This idea is called Vision Zero.

Coun. Catherine McKenney had put forward a motion at city council about two weeks ago to have city staff provide a framework for Vision Zero by the end of the year. Instead of going for that, the motion was referred to city staff for consideration.

The city’s complete streets policy is supposed to be used to provide safer infrastructure for all road users, not just drivers. While it doesn’t spell out exactly how to do that, I would have thought the city could approach these opportunities to reinvent major corridors with some more creative ideas. Instead we’re getting the same tired designs we’ve been seeing for years that leave everyone unhappy.

If we end up with sharrows on Rideau and a floating bike lane for Slater and Elgin, it will just confirm that the city isn’t serious about complete streets.

You can provide your comments to the City of Ottawa regarding these projects by emailing the relevant project engineers, found here (for Rideau) and here (For Albert/Slater).


Devyn Barrie

Devyn Barrie is the publisher and editor of OttawaStart.com. He currently studies math and physics at the University of Ottawa, and holds a diploma in journalism from Algonquin College.